Syrian refugee chef will showcase Middle Eastern flavours at Wakefield food festival

August 3, 2016

By Evelyn Harford, Ottawa Citizen |

Ahmad Altaouil was a successful chef in Syria before his family was uprooted by the civil war four years ago.

He lost his restaurant and stability.

Now as a Syrian refugee recently resettled in Canada, Altaouil is looking to make a comeback. The 31-year-old chef is set to be one of 11 vendors at the first Fairbairn Food Festival in Wakefield on Saturday.

Altaouil plans to whip up warm, savory Syrian pizzas — a flatbread delight cooked to order in wood fired domed oven, stuffed with an assortment of sauces, meat and veggies — just as he did back in Syria.

Altaouil served the Syrian pizzas and 21 other savoury dishes at his restaurant, Mouajanaat Al-Moustafa, in Damascus. But after the war broke out, security and safety took priority over. He closed the restaurant in 2012 and he, his wife and their two children fled to neighbouring Jordan.

“I was sad to close down,” he said Wednesday through a translator. “But I was more afraid for my family than afraid to leave my business.”

They packed what belongings they could squeeze into their car — including the beloved stove in which he cooked his Syrian pizzas.

Altaouil said he was afraid of not finding a job, but amid the chaos he knew one thing for sure: he could cook. In Jordan, Altaouil cooked his pizzas at a local market to support his family.

“I didn’t want to rely on other people or the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees),” he said. “I wanted to be proud of sustaining my family.”

Then he got the call of a lifetime: Altaouil and his young family were selected to come to Canada and were among the tens of thousands who have arrived since last November.

The day he was called to go to the airport Altaouil gave his loyal clients in Jordan a parting gift: he served them for free.

In February, Altaouil, his wife and their three children flew to Montreal where they met their refugee partner from Wakefield for Refugees, Ramez Chalhoub.

Chalhoub himself is half Syrian and acts as a translator, friend and stand-in brother for Altaouil.

Chalhoub said that both he and Altaouil will be working to pump out the Syrian pizzas and hope the food festival will help launch their profile in the local culinary landscape.

“It was God who sent me to Wakefield,” said Altaouil through Chalhoub.

Altaouil had asked Chalhoub if they could do something together and Chalhoub, who had been thinking about doing something with food, thought the food festival would be a good start.

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